A few years ago in New York, I was driving behind a black man who tossed some trash out of his window onto the road. Stupid nigger were the first words that shot through my mind, to my shock and disappointment. I hate the N-word, and the bigotry it embodies. I always have. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, though. My uncle, with whom I spent a lot of time throughout my childhood, used the N-word to refer to all black people, and stupid as a common modifier to the word. Though I rejected his racism, it lurks somewhere within me.
Several months back, I was walking down a treelined block in Hollywood, and two large black men were walking on the sidewalk, toward me. I got a little nervous at the sight of them, and considered crossing the street, even though it was the middle of the day and there was absolutely no reason to believe these men were threatening in any way. Aside from the fact that they were black, of course, and I grew up in suburban Detroit, where we white kids learned that black men were dangerous. Especially if they're large. I know this is false and hurtful, but my hometown's racism lurks somewhere within me, too.
I don't consider myself a racist, though I know it's in me to be one. It's in all of us white people to be one. That's a tragic reality of growing up in a country where racism is woven into all areas of society. I guarantee, even the most loving and compassionate white people on the planet still sometimes have racist thoughts, whether they intend to or not. I am committed to being as loving as I can be, and I see how my thoughts turn ugly at times, how I can make prejudicial assumptions about others. The difference between non-racists and racists is the recognition, in non-racists, that the bigoted thoughts that sometimes pollute our minds--because of years or a lifetime of conditioning--are rooted in fear and ignorance, and are untrue, hateful and dangerous. The thoughts aren't the problem. No one can control everything they think, and everyone thinks hateful things sometimes. It's how we choose to respond to these thoughts that matters.
The difference between non-racists and racists is the recognition, in non-racists, that the bigoted thoughts that sometimes pollute our minds--because of years or a lifetime of conditioning--are rooted in fear and ignorance, and are untrue, hateful and dangerous.
Do we believe our racist ideas, or do we question and refute them? If we want to live in a world that better reflects kindness, equality and love, we have to question and refute them. Every single time they present themselves. I am not my uncle's racism. Nor am I my hometown's. Nor am I my country's. I refuse to own those lies as my truth.
Our minds tell us lies all the time, distorting reality so we can feel justified in our self-righteousness, or anger, or judgment. I have too often sacrificed objectivity and kindness for the need to be right. Our fear, rarely interested in the truth, can push us to bigotry, and hatred, and separation. I'm scared of all the violence in our world, and I see how my fear tries to sell me an us versus them reality--minorities versus Whites, cops versus protesters, non-Muslims versus Muslims--in order to suggest, incorrectly, that those who are different from us are somehow a threat to our well-being. But our humanity requires us to examine our thoughts, to diffuse the ones that call for racism and separation, and to give weight to the ones that mandate compassion and acceptance. We have to honor the thoughts that remind us we are not only all equal, but also responsible for the representation of each other's equality in our country and world. These are the beliefs I'm committed to reflecting. These are the convictions that speak to my deepest truth, rather than my learned, fear-based racism.
Overcoming racist conditioning takes work, and it starts from within. If I'm not willing to look at my own prejudices honestly, how will I be able to overcome them? We can't heal what we refuse to acknowledge. If I am indeed committed to the goals of peace and equality, as I declare myself to be, it's my responsibility to make sure I challenge my racist thoughts, so they don't turn into racist words and actions.
If I'm not willing to look at my own prejudices honestly, how will I be able to overcome them? We can't heal what we refuse to acknowledge.
I'm not writing this for the hardcore racists out there, who are committed to their hateful views of minorities. Their hatred is a tragedy, to be sure, for themselves and our world. But I write this for those of us who may not even be aware of how our actions negatively affect the call for respect and equality--of all minorities and marginalized populations. Is our conditioned bigotry seeping into our words and actions? Might we be adding to, instead of dissipating, the divisiveness that exists in our country?
That brings me to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to the frustration I feel when I see the words All Lives Matter, often in caps and with exclamation points. I've always understood Black Lives Matter to have a too at the end, and not an only at the beginning. It's a call for equality, not superiority. Why resist this notion? I think because a lot of us white people get nervous at the thought of a unified black population demanding respect, safety and equality. I'm absolutely for racial equality, and I'm excited to see protests all over the country against racial injustice. Still, along with my excitement, I've felt uneasy in moments watching hundreds of black protesters marching in the streets. I'm not proud to admit that. But when I checked in with that discomfort, I saw it was rooted in the false belief--learned in my youth and supported by politicians, media and much of society throughout my life--that black people are somehow dangerous and can't be trusted. This is racism, my racism, and I reject it. Again, we can't control all of our thoughts, but we can examine them, and control how we respond to them. Though All Lives Matter may feel good to write, and may read like a call for unity, it only serves as a banner of separation, and it undermines the important mission of bringing awareness and healing to the systemic racism against black people that exists (and has always existed) in our country. How can all lives matter if black lives still don't?
Though All Lives Matter may feel good to write, and may read like a call for unity, it only serves as a banner of separation, and it undermines the important mission of bringing awareness and healing to the systemic racism against black people that exists (and has always existed) in our country.
I watch as many try to paint Black Lives Matter as a violent, hate group, but that's not consistent with my experience of them. I've spent time on the website, I've reflected on their guiding principles, I've listened to their leaders, I've paid attention to the overwhelmingly peaceful protests, and I've understood that no movement can be held responsible for a minority of outliers who refuse to heed the call for peace. The movement does not advocate violence, and those who act violently in its name do not represent the movement. If I am certain they're a terrorist organization but haven't taken the time to understand their message and study their protests, where exactly does that certainty come from? Isn't it incumbent upon me to question my assumptions, and to get the facts? If I'm not willing to do that, the least I can do is refrain from contributing to a false narrative, one that further marginalizes Blacks in America.
I wish more of us white people would keep quiet when we don't have anything constructive to offer the Black Lives Matter conversation, or worse, when our opinions on racial injustice directly contradict the claims of the black population. We don't know what we're talking about. As a white man, I can never speak to the reality of being black. I can, however, educate myself, so that I'm able to consider the black experience with intelligence, empathy and compassion. I can learn. And if we are really interested in learning about the African-American experience in our country, then we need to do more than talk to and listen to black people. We need to believe what they're telling us. Even when it's not consistent with what we tell ourselves. We learn the most--the truth--about the realities and struggles of a culture from those who are a part of said culture. If we're open to the truth, that is.
If we are really interested in learning about the African-American experience in our country, then we need to do more than talk to and listen to black people. We need to believe what they're telling us.
I think that's one of the problems. A lot of us aren't open to the truth about others, not if it contradicts what we've been taught to believe. Conditioning runs deep. I know how adamantly I've held onto my own beliefs about other people, and other cultures, because of where I grew up, and because of the worldview that was painted for me. But nobody is born a racist. Racism is learned, which means it can be unlearned, if we're willing to do the work. We must be willing to challenge our own prejudices, in order to see and live beyond them, if we want to live in a more peaceful, connected and equal nation. I believe the great majority of us want exactly that. More of us want to be united than divided.
One more thought about the hardcore racists. They are the minority now, becoming more so each year as our country continues to grow in its diversity, and as younger, more progressive generations awaken to the understanding that we are all equal, connected human beings, and that oppressing any one of us is an oppression of all of us. We hurt ourselves by hurting each other. I believe racism, though entirely present today, screams more of our past than it will of our future. If we make it so. We, the majority, must continue to speak up for equality, for civility, for compassion, and for love. Let our voices be so loud, our hearts so open, and our spirits so big that there's no longer any room for the ignorance and fear of bigoted minds. Including our own.
And let us all continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement until the black community--and only the black community--decides there's no longer a need for it. Only they have the experience to say so.